“Clay saved my sanity” meet the man bringing Lowestoft porcelain back
- Credit: Archant
“I had what I suppose you’d class as a bit of a breakdown years ago and it was that, and the need to create, that led me back to clay – and the clay really did save my sanity.”
Tim Cross, who runs Lowestoft Studio Ceramics, is hoping to spark a Lowestoft porcelain renaissance in a town which is increasingly celebrating its artistic community, having fallen in love with clay during a difficult period in his life.
“It’s well documented that working with clay has therapeutic qualities and for me, it really helped me to get my life back on track a decade ago. Today, I’m happier than I’ve been for years and I am sure it’s down to what I do and being creative every day.”
Tim, 50, a former Framingham Earl pupil, worked for Jarrold Printing and then moved to London where he trained as a jeweller at Central Saint Martins before selling his work in the markets of the capital.
Back in Norwich with his young daughter, he was part of the team that started up health food store The Greengrocers in Norwich in 2004.
After the sale of the business in 2009 and a number of other jobs, he decided to go back to studying three years ago and graduated with a first-class honours degree from the University of Suffolk in summer.
Tim, who lives with his partner in Lowestoft, opened the doors to his first studio in June and has been working with clay for a decade.
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In addition to sales of his and other artists’ work, he also offers studio hire at the High Street shop and a range of classes and short courses to introduce others to the discipline.
It was a stint hand-making watercolour brushes for Winsor and Newton at the Crown Artist Brush Factory in the town that led Tim to Lowestoft clay.
“The factory was on the original Lowestoft Porcelain factory site and when I looked into it, I learned more about the town’s association with clay,” said Tim.
“Learning more encouraged me to go to university, my dissertation was on Lowestoft Porcelain and from that moment on it felt like everything was leading to opening my studio.
“Other people on my course didn’t really know what they wanted to do after their degree, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And now I’m doing it!”
The Lowestoft porcelain factory may be less well known than factories such as Worcester, Chelsea, Caughley and Derby but it was a hugely important industry in the town.
Porcelain in the mid-18th century was mainly imported from China and English factories were quick to try and copy the distinctive blue and white designs to capture the market.
Lowestoft’s factory’s production began in 1757 and continued until 1801.
It became famous for its ‘Trifles from Lowestoft’, porcelain souvenirs for the increasing number of tourists visiting the town for the fresh sea air and stunning sunrises.
‘Trifles’ were also produced for other nearby towns in Norfolk and Suffolk and pieces were commissioned for private clients to mark anniversaries or even deaths.
Tim explained that Lowestoft’s porcelain history included episodes of industrial espionage: workers from London sabotaging the manufacturing of porcelain in the town to retain the capital’s stranglehold and the curious tale of a factory manager in a barrel.
In 1756 Hewling Luson found 'fine clay' on his Gunton Estate, north of Lowestoft, and sent samples for tests to the Bow factory east of London.
According to local chronicler Edmund Gillingwater a positive report led to a kiln and furnace fired by Bow workers who turned out to be saboteurs paid by their old employer to thwart a potential rival.
A consortium continued trials in a Lowestoft Porcelain Manufactory in Bell Lane (now Crown Street). Gillingwater claims they, too, were almost wrecked by cheats from Bow.
Tall tales claim Lowestoft porcelain factory manager Robert Browne got a job at the London Bow factory, pretended to be simple-minded, hid in a barrel overnight and spied on employees making the secret porcelain recipe before bringing it back home.
While this tale may be fanciful, Lowestoft’s porcelain made of clay, crushed flint and bone ash was very similar to that used at Bow.
Major collections of Lowestoft porcelain can be seen in the Norwich Castle, Ipswich Christchurch Mansion, Lowestoft and Victoria & Albert museums.
Tim uses his own secret recipe for porcelain adapted from the 18th century using clay found in nearby woods (“you only need a very small amount…) and says it produces pieces with small flecks in them, or “little pieces of Lowestoft.”
Tim’s own work includes beakers and sculptures and he loves to make unusual pieces based on products we would otherwise throw away: for example, a 3D printed mould of a plastic profiterole tray has been turned into a delicate porcelain bowl which “looks like a miniature Eden Project!”
He adds: “I like to think that I am continuing the dynasty of Lowestoft porcelain by separating the history from the heritage: the history is what we did, the heritage is what we are taking from it into the future.
“I love the fact that porcelain has been a part of this town for centuries and it continues to have a presence here. It makes the studio feel as if it was meant to be.”
In his studio filled with vintage finds and quirky details - pottery wheels are called Patrick and Demi, although Unchained Melody isn’t on the playlist, tools are stored in glass-fronted cocktail cabinets, the toilet’s ‘vacant’ sign has a piece of embossed tape above it reading ‘pretty’ - Tim is hoping his studio will be a place more artists will approach to sell their wares.
“It is such an exciting time to be a creative in Lowestoft with a huge number of really exciting projects and a fantastic artistic community which is incredibly supportive to everyone,” said Tim, mentioning Think Lowestoft, the Lowestoft Virtual Creative Hub, the regeneration of East Point Pavilion and 2022’s return of the First Light Festival.
“There are some incredibly talented artists working here like Alexander Costello who studied at the Slade School of Art [Costello is a sculptor, performance and video artist who is a member of the Royal Society of Sculptors] and I am working with the town’s heritage centre on projects,” he said.
Tim’s daughter Cydney, who studied at Norwich University of the Arts, will be collaborating with her father on a dinnerware service in the future and he has plans to increase the number of classes he offers.
“I have a pupil that comes to my Monday morning beginners’ class and her family has a Tang Dynasty sculpture where one figure is missing a head and one has a broken head,” said Tim, “so we’re using my 3D printer to scan the head, print it and create a mould.
“She wants to get into restoration and it’s such a pleasure to have people in my class who are so keen to learn and so passionate about what they’re doing.
“So here we are in a beginners’ class learning about an imperial dynasty but because she’s so keen, I am pulling out all the stops.
“I have to pinch myself that I am a teacher. I never thought I’d be able to teach but I am loving it and loving the enthusiasm and dedication of the students.”
And will Tim be bringing back Trifles from Lowestoft?
“The Trifles will be back!” he said, “not only that, but my mother’s old trifle bowl is here in the shop with me which we used to all have trifle from on birthdays..and I have a pack of trifles in the fridge, too…
“You could say it’s all about the trifles here…!”